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Mexican Border City Plagued By Drug Cartel Violence Awaits Pope Visit


Tomorrow, Pope Francis will become the first pope to celebrate mass on the U.S.-Mexico border. He'll be in Juarez. The desert city reflects Mexico's entrenched problems - cartel violence, illegal immigration, corruption. And Pope Francis is expected to address all of that. For the city, the pope's visit represents a ray of hope, as NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A savage cartel turf war turned Juarez into one of the world's murder capitals from 2008 to 2013. In those days, San Rafael Municipal Cemetery was a busy place. Out here, cheap white crosses and faded plastic flowers adorn the desert for as far as the eye can see.

GERARDO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Cemetery worker Gerardo Martinez leans against his idling John-Deere excavator. He says he used to dig 20 to 30 graves a day, mostly for the bullet-shattered remains of men in their early 20s. They were some of the 11,000 victims of the mafia war.

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "Now I'm making eight to 10 graves a day, and we hope the number keeps going down," says the gravedigger. "We want the pope to pray for us all to continue to calm the violence here in Juarez."

Some of the young men who didn't end up in the graveyard ended up in prison. On his stopover in Juarez, the pope is scheduled to visit inmates inside the notoriously violent state prison, CERESO number three.

A disheveled woman named Delia Bacio is unloading toiletries from the back of a battered station wagon in the parking lot. She says she's here to visit her nephew. He's serving 50 years for kidnapping.

DELIA BACIO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "There are lots of bad people here but good people, also. What they need," she says, motioning toward the razor-topped fence, "is redemption and hope. That's the message the pope can bring. He comes representing God."

BACIO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Juarez is healing. While violent death is still a feature of life here, last year, the body count dropped to 311. That compares the 3,111 murders in 2010. Justice has been served in only a tiny fraction of the mafia killings and in the abductions and slayings of hundreds of young women. But in recent years, stores and nightclubs have reopened. People who fled the violence are moving back to town. You don't see the mask of fear in the streets like you used to, but you do see in the eyes of some Juarenses a penetrating sadness.

LUPITA DAVILA: (Through interpreter) Pope Francis, for me in particular, brings a new vision for our city.

BURNETT: Six years ago, cartel assassins murdered Lupita Davila's teenaged son, Rodrigo, along with 14 other young people. They were at a birthday party. It was a horrific case of mistaken identity. This slaughter of innocents evoked international outrage.

DAVILA: (Through interpreter) The eyes of the world were returned to Juarez as a city that is trying to recover from a pain that I and thousands of mothers have experienced, a pain like no other - the loss of a son.

BURNETT: Pope Francis is also coming to Juarez to call for more compassion toward undocumented immigrants. There's talk he will visit the border fence above the muddy canal that conjoins and divides these two cities. Miriam Guerrero will be listening. She grew up in Juarez and crossed illegally into El Paso 11 years ago.

MIRIAM GUERRERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Guerrero says she lived in a cage, a small swatch of West Texas bounded by Border Patrol checkpoints and the Rio Grande. She cleans houses. Her husband is a welder. He's also undocumented. They live in constant fear. With three children, all U.S. citizens, deportation would be cataclysmic. What would she like to hear for the pontiff?

GUERRERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "A direct message to the presidential candidates to stop attacking us," she says, "because we're not criminals or rapists, as one candidate called us. In reality, we're looking for a better life for our families. We didn't come here to do damage."

After his visit to the Mexico-Texas border, Pope Francis plans to board the papal jet at the Juarez Airport and return directly to Rome. John Burnett, NPR News, Juarez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.